College in the Military

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Can You go to College While in the Military

Attending college while serving in the armed services can prepare students to launch civilian careers or pursue advanced degrees. However, pursuing a college education while enlisted can also present unique challenges.

This guide helps military students assess their college enrollment options, secure educational funding, and locate academic and social support resources. In addition, it offers tips on attending civilian programs and examines the myths and realities of college life as an active-duty or reserve student.

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Getting your degree and serving in the military

  • Can you go to college and be in the military?

    Yes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), over 342,000 active-duty students and 39,000 reservists attended graduate and undergraduate programs in 2016.

  • Should I finish college before joining the military?

    Many military students attend college while serving. Individuals planning to become commissioned officers may benefit from earning a bachelor’s or professional degree before joining the military.

  • Does military service help you get into college?

    Military service can help students develop skills that admissions committees look for. Some schools may also grant academic credit for military experience.

  • Is it worth joining the military to pay for school?

    Military students enjoy substantial federal educational benefits. In 2016, active-duty students and veterans received an average of $15,100 annually for undergraduate study and $16,200 for graduate study.

How to Navigate College

According to NCES, in 2016, active-duty service members and reserve students represented only 1.7% of total college enrollment, with veterans making up another 4.6%. As a minority in higher education, military students face unique challenges.

With a longer gap between high school graduation and college enrollment than many of their peers, military students may need to update rusty study skills. Academic counselors, college tutoring centers, on-base education offices, and nonprofits, such as the National Association of Veterans Upward Bound and the Warrior-Scholar Project, can provide support.

Accustomed to shared military values, norms, and obligations, enlisted students sometimes feel out of place in civilian learning environments. They may perceive their often-younger peers as lacking in discipline and maturity. Many active-duty students and reservists find that connecting with other service members through veteran service centers and student organizations helps alleviate feelings of isolation and frustration.

Mental health issues can also interfere with academic success. As part of a military culture that values self-reliance, some students experiencing mental health struggles may resist seeking help. Groups such as Real Warriors help combat the stigma surrounding mental health issues and connect service members with resources and support.

Enrollment Options for Active Duty and Reserve Members

Military members enjoy more postsecondary enrollment options than ever before. Each type offers pros and cons, which students should consider when choosing an enrollment option. The right choice can depend on factors like stationing location, time availability, and desired degree major.

  • Satellite Campuses

    Students seeking an in-person classroom setting may benefit from attending a satellite campus program. Military-sponsored programs and contracted civilian institutions deliver degree programs at or near installations throughout the United States and in overseas deployment destinations. Also referred to as on-base education, these programs employ face-to-face or hybrid instruction to approximate a traditional on-campus experience.

    Pros: Specifically designed for active-duty students, these programs typically feature accelerated terms to accommodate training and deployment schedules. They provide a high degree of structure.

    Cons: Limited selection of available majors may constrain learners’ degree options. The live class format offers less flexibility than many online programs.

  • Online Programs

    Military students stationed across the globe can study online at many regional and national institutions. Distance learning programs may feature asynchronous or synchronous course delivery. These programs require self-motivation and strong time management skills.

    Pros: Online students can typically choose from more majors than students in satellite/on-base programs. The flexibility of asynchronous online courses also allows students to organize study time around their changing responsibilities.

    Cons: Synchronous class sessions and group projects can pose scheduling complications for students stationed in disparate time zones. Learners who need a more structured environment may struggle to manage their assignments.

How to Choose a Program

Before selecting a college program, students should consider what sort of military or post-military career best suits their interests and skills. On-base education counselors and resources, such as DANTES’s Kuder Journey program, can help students clarify their professional objectives and identify appropriate majors.

After projecting a course of study, the next step involves choosing a program that aligns with learners’ off-duty hours and base locations. Students should also research their options if events such as deployments interrupt their studies. Many schools allow deployed students to pause their education, switch to online delivery, or pursue independent study.

Paying for College as Active Military

Federal tuition assistance and GI Bill® benefits represent some of the most popular funding sources for active-duty students. These benefits can cover a significant portion of educational expenses. Military students also enjoy access to aid resources such as the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education, the Yellow Ribbon Program, and a variety of military scholarships.

  • Tuition Assistance

    Only active-duty students, including some National Guard and reserve students, can access this form of aid. It covers tuition costs and most fees. Unlike GI Bill benefits, tuition assistance (TA) does not cover housing, books, or supplies. Taking advantage of TA while enlisted allows service members to reserve GI Bill benefits for post-service graduate study or spouses and dependents.

    Each service branch administers TA independently. Service members in all five military branches can receive funding of up to $250 per credit hour. The Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps award a maximum of $4,500 annually. The Navy caps annual funding at $3,000, while the Coast Guard pays up to $2,250 a year. Additional obligations, restrictions, and eligibility criteria vary by branch.

    Tuition Assistance Top-Up

    Available to active-duty students and veterans, Tuition Assistance Top-up (TATU) supplements educational costs not covered by the Armed Forces. Combined with TA and/or GI Bill benefits, it may pay up to the full amount of tuition and fees. Students cannot use TATU to pay for other costs, such as books or living expenses. Since this program draws on service members’ GI Bill benefits, students should remember that using it reduces future funding availability.

  • GI Bill

    The U.S. government instituted the GI Bill in 1944. Updates in 1984 and 2008 established the two main benefit categories students receive today. In 2017, the Forever GI Bill further updated the program.

    The Post-9/11 GI Bill offers variable funding levels dependent on length of service. It pays up to 100% of in-state tuition and fees at public institutions and $25,162.14 annually at private or foreign schools, plus housing stipends and book allowances.

    The Montgomery GI Bill pays up to $2,122 a month directly to enrollees. Active-duty students may buy in with monthly $100 payments during their first service year. An additional Montgomery GI Bill program benefits reserve students. To learn more about navigating the complex GI Bill system, check out our guide to maximizing your benefits.

    GI Bill Myths

    Since being in the military is a full-time job and requires a high level of commitment, there tend to be many misconceptions surrounding college attendance while serving in the military. Learn about some of these myths and their realities below.

    Going into the military right out of high school means you won’t be able to afford college until done serving.
    Reality: All military branches value education and make it easy to fund a postsecondary education while serving. Between TA, TATU, and the GI Bill, much of a college education is paid for while serving.
    An online degree is not as good as one from a traditional brick-and-mortar campus.
    Reality: Most accredited brick-and-mortar campuses offer online programs. Typically, accredited online programs offer the same academic rigor and diploma as their on-campus counterparts.
    Military members don’t have the time to go to school while serving, especially if deployed.
    Reality: Many military members pursue postsecondary education while serving, even when deployed. Because there is a lot of downtime when deployed, many military members use that time to work on getting a degree.
    Military members in experience experience low success rates.
    Reality: Many schools offer designated faculty and departments to work with active military members, which can help students succeed. To help with success rates, it’s a good idea for students to choose a military-friendly college while implementing their own study skills and personal motivation.
    The GI Bills can only be used after I’m done serving.
    Reality: The Montgomery GI Bill and the Post 9/11 GI Bill can be used while serving after completing two years of service. However, in most cases, it is better to first use TA and TATU benefits.

  • Scholarships and Financial Aid

    Some students need additional funding for school beyond GI Bill benefits, especially if paying out-of-state tuition or attending a private or foreign school. Military students can take advantage of grants and scholarships to cover these costs. Explore the link below for a state-by-state guide to military scholarships.

Additional Resources

Organizations like individual military branches, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs provide many tools and services to support military students.

  • American Council of Education Military Guide ACE provides a searchable, continuously updated database of military courses and occupations, along with widely accepted recommendations for transfer credit allocation.

  • Army Continuing Education System This system forms a central hub for Army educational services. Students can access resources and information related to college enrollment, testing services, career skills development, and tuition assistance.

  • Career Path Decide This website offers assessment tools, labor market data, and information on colleges and programs to help service members conduct research and make informed decisions regarding career paths and college majors.

  • Choosing a School Guide Service members can use this service to research GI Bill-approved schools, compare benefit coverage at different institutions, and find Yellow Ribbon program schools. They can also access information on educational financial planning.

  • Coast Guard Voluntary Education This resource centralizes information and services for Coast Guard-affiliated students. Resources offered include free tutoring; transcript and testing services; and information on tuition assistance, GI Bill benefits, grants, and military scholarships.

  • College Navigator A service of NCES, this website provides college enrollment data and guidance for civilian and military students. Students can search for and compare schools by criteria such as location, cost, and program availability.

  • Community College of the Air Force Air Force members can earn associate of applied science degrees, professional licenses, and certifications through CCAF. The institution also partners with civilian schools to provide bachelor's degree-completion programs.

  • DANTES DANTES supports students from all Armed Forces branches. It offers college planning resources, academic skills training, and assistance with civilian career transition.

  • GI Bill Comparison Tool This tool allows active-duty and reserve students, veterans, spouses, and dependents to compare GI Bill benefits by school. Service members can also view benefits they may receive from employers and non-degree training programs.

  • Marine Corps Voluntary Education Program This program gathers education-related resources for Marines. It offers information on tuition funding sources and facilitates access to DANTES programs, transcript services, counseling, and advising.

  • Montgomery GI Bill - Active Duty This webpage provides an introduction to Montgomery GI Bill eligibility and benefits for active-duty students. Students can learn about how to qualify for, access, and use their benefits.

  • Navy College Program Navy students can use this hub to explore college programs and career directions, research schools, receive college counseling, and secure educational funding. They can also find information on testing, career planning, and Navy-specific assistance programs.

  • Post 9/11 GI Bill This resource describes Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility requirements and benefits. Students can learn about how the VA calculates benefits, and how students and their family members can use them.

  • TA Decide TA Decide enables service members using tuition assistance to research and compare schools by criteria such as accreditation, location, and delivery format.

  • Yellow Ribbon Schools This page provides a state-by-state listing of Yellow Ribbon program schools. Participating colleges and universities waive a portion of tuition costs that exceed students' Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

Expert Interview

Portrait of ​Lizz Galea

​Lizz Galea

U.S. Air Force ​A1C (Airman First Class) ​Lizz Galea, 23, is from Kalkaska, Michigan, and currently stationed at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom, about 75 miles from London. She decided​ to join the Air Force in April 2019, and officially enlisted in the DEP (Delayed Entry Program) in May 2019.​ She ​is taking online classes in pursuit of an arts and sciences degree from Northwestern Michigan College, located about 25 miles from her hometown. She has a particular interest in dietetics and hopes to eventually work as a ​registered dietitian for athletes​.

  • What do you enjoy most about pursuing your degree?

    I love being knowledgeable about things I am most passionate about. Health has always played a huge role in my life, and I’m constantly learning new ways to incorporate better healthy habits in my everyday routine.

  • What is the most challenging part about attending college while serving in the military?

    The most challenging part would have to be the unstructuredness of college and really prioritizing time for school. The military is extremely structured, as many people already know. As a service member, I know what my duties and responsibilities are. If I am given orders to accomplish a task, there is a deadline, and if it’s not completed it may impact the mission.

    On the other hand, in college, the success is all up to the student. The professors will provide the material and help if asked, but if I decide not to do the work, it’s only my future that I am affecting. This leads to prioritizing time. For example, I work 0730 to 1630 Monday through Friday. Under special circumstances I may have to work earlier, later, or even on the weekends. However, this does not include time for daily errands, the gym, or any extra volunteer work that the Air Force may require.

    To avoid overwhelming myself, I have to create a schedule. My work schedule, any special duties, going to the gym, and designated time for studying all go in my planner.

  • What are some tips for student success while trying to balance serving with getting an education?

    Make a schedule for yourself! If you don’t have a planner or a calendar, get one! They are so inexpensive, and they will help keep your head on straight. Second to that, another important tip would be to have a clear understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing. I find it helpful writing down what motivates me and what pushes me to do better. Make a list of short-term and long-term goals, and try to chip away at them everyday!

  • What is your recommendation for funding a degree while actively serving?

    Fortunately, every active-duty service member is entitled to tuition assistance. Depending on how expensive the college or university is, it is possible that the military will pay up to two classes per semester. Going to school is not only a benefit in the military, it is also looked at as a privilege. Service members need to meet specific requirements to take classes. To name a few examples, we have to complete our upgrade training, know that the mission comes first, and maintain a certain GPA. I couldn’t agree more with the requirements. The military really gives a fair and equal way for everyone to further their education.

  • How is funding different for active military vs reserve members?

    There is no difference. There are some specific scholarships for each, but no difference in costs.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by the VA is available at

Portrait of Ilana Hamilton

Ilana Hamilton

Ilana Hamilton lives in Portland, Oregon, where she studied English at Reed College. After an early career in visual media, Ilana returned professionally to her love of the written word. She now works as a writer and editor while raising two children and performing as a storyteller.

See more articles by Ilana

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